Titanic's shipbuilders tackled an olympic task

In the summer of 1907, J. Bruce Ismay, chairman of The White Star Line, decided he had a problem.

  • The bows of Olympic, foreground, and Titanic take shape under construction scaffolding in the Belfast shipyard sometime between 1909 and 1911.

    George Grantham Bain Collection via Library of Congress

    The bows of Olympic, foreground, and Titanic take shape under construction scaffolding in the Belfast shipyard sometime between 1909 and 1911.

George Grantham Bain Collection via Library of Congress

The bows of Olympic, foreground, and Titanic take shape under construction scaffolding in the Belfast shipyard sometime between 1909 and 1911.

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As the number of people migrating to the USA from Europe was reaching record highs, he was losing business to his competitors — chief among them Cunard. Cunard was setting speed records for the Southampton-to-New York crossing with the introduction of its Mauretania and the Lusitania liners, which made the trip in just four days.

As competition among the steamship companies heated up, the cost of a ticket dropped, which placed the possibility of a new beginning in the USA within reach for even greater numbers of people. Ismay explained his challenge to Lord Pirrie, chairman of Harland and Wolff Shipbuilders, over dinner one evening in July.

Harland and Wolff were known for their speed and efficiency as shipbuilders, as well as their engineering prowess and willingness to explore and deploy innovative ideas in design and steam propulsion. The company's shipyard in Belfast, Northern Ireland, was considered the best, and White Star had a long and exclusive relationship with the "shipbuilders to the world." Seventy of White Star's vessels bore the Harland and Wolff imprimatur.

As the two men considered the best way to beat back Cunard's offensive, a vision of bigger, better ocean liners came into focus: a veritable "Olympic" class. These ships would not be the fastest on the high seas, but they would be the world's biggest, capable of carrying record numbers of people across the Atlantic with each voyage.

Olympic: Titanic’s sister ship

The order to proceed on Titanic's construction was delivered on April 30, 1907. It was the second ship of the Olympic class, so designers and engineers of shipbuilding company Harland and Wolff had the benefit of spotting areas for improvement by closely tracking the performance of its sister ship, Olympic, which was about a year ahead of Titanic's construction schedule.

After Olympic's launch and maiden voyage, several changes were made to Titanic. Some of them addressed passenger comfort by enclosing decks and promenades to shield them from water spray and wind. Other changes reduced the ship's vibration and increased its rigidity across the hull.

Olympic would have a long and illustrious career, completing countless voyages and even serving in the military by transporting thousands of British, Canadian and U.S. troops during World War I — even ramming a German U-boat. (Olympic was the only commercial vessel known to have sunk an enemy warship.)

After 24 years of service, "Old Reliable," as Olympic was nicknamed, was retired and scrapped.

Olympic was designed by the same men and built at the same shipyard out of the same materials as Titanic. It has been said that the only "real"difference between the two
was the iceberg.

By Genevieve Sexton

The liners also would feature luxurious amenities that would attract wealthy Americans looking to travel in high style and an aura of dignified elegance that would appeal to those aspiring to embark upon a new life.

A year later, Harland and Wolff presented White Star with plans for what would become the most magnificent "Royal Mail Ships" ever constructed: the Olympic, the Titanic and the Gigantic (which was later renamed the Britannic). By bearing the "RMS" designation, the vessels would receive premiere berths wherever they docked to ensure that the mail they carried was delivered as quickly as possible. The ships also would give White Star the competitive edge of greater visibility and prestige, characteristics it hoped would entice people across the sea.

The agreement between White Star and Harland and Wolff stated that the ships of the Olympic class were to be built "barring no expense." But even with a blank check, the finest available materials and the best engineers, Harland and Wolff's first task was to upscale its entire shipworks by as much as 200% to accommodate the creation of these leviathans.

That required a complete reorganization of the shipyard. Three slips had to be demolished to make room for two of the largest slips ever constructed. Teams of men had to design and erect an enormous gantry over the slips and equip it with a battery of cranes and elevators allowing workers access to the vessel as it was literally built from the ground up. Workshops had to be remodeled, and the latest steel-working machinery was custom-built and installed.

Titanic: 100 Years later

USA TODAY and National Geographic Channel are producing a series of reports on the centennial of the Titanic’s sinking. See more at natgeotv.com/titanic. Watch Titanic specials on The National Geographic Channel starting April 8 at 8 p.m. ET.

For Harland and Wolff, the contract meant not just building the largest ships ever constructed but also creating the infrastructure to produce the largest steam-powered engines, the largest castings and the largest anchors the world had ever seen.

Construction on Titanic began on March 31, 1909. The ship's keel — the "backbone" of the ship that runs lengthwise along the center line from bow to stern — was laid first. Then the ship's latticed steel frame was attached to the keel, like ribs coming off of its spine. Then, 3 million rivets, some made of iron and some of steel, were individually set by teams of skilled workers to attach steel plates to the frame to form the ship's watertight hull.

The plates varied in size and shape, depending on where they were placed. Some were as tall as a three-story building and weighed as much as 3 tons. At the base of the ship, the plates made up a cellular double-bottom composed of two layers of steel that spanned the length of the ship and were separated by 5 feet of space. The gap was supposed to increase the ship's safety in case of a collision and also could take on water for ballast or feeding the ship's boilers.

The hull of the ship was then subdivided into eight steel decks and 16 vertical compartments with transverse bulkhead walls that extended above the water line and could be sealed off with watertight doors in an emergency. Engineers believed that several of these bulkheads or compartments could be flooded but that the ship would still remain afloat for two to three days, enough time for rescue crews to reach a foundering ship and save passengers. This design element is thought to have contributed to the claims that Titanic was "practically unsinkable."

Once the hull was complete, the ship's mechanics were then installed. Even that process created a spectacle as pieces of massive equipment made their way to Harland and Wolff's shipyard. Titanic's 101-ton rudder was as tall as a seven-story building and weighed as much as 14 fully grown African elephants. Twenty draft horses were required to pull just one of Titanic's 15-ton anchors through Belfast on a wagon.

Each of Titanic's three engines was as big as a three-story house and could produce about 46,000 kilowatts of horsepower, generated by 29 boilers and 159 coal-burning furnaces. The three engines turned three propellers made of a manganese-bronze alloy. Each had a diameter of almost 24 feet — about the length of a large school bus. Exhaust from the engines vented through three of the ship's smokestacks. Harland and Wolff installed the fourth smokestack for aesthetic reasons and used it for ventilation and storage. Titanic's generators produced more power than the typical city power plant at the time and lit the ship's 10,000 light bulbs via 200 miles of electrical wiring.

Once Titanic was fully framed in April 1910, work began on its interior. The White Star's Olympic class of ships was the first to feature onboard swimming pools, a gymnasium and a squash court. First-class passengers were treated to a lavish travel experience that included elegantly appointed rooms with wood paneling, expensive carpets, stained-glass windows and gourmet restaurants. The second- and third-class compartments, while not nearly as posh as first class, were considerably nicer than those of other liners, offering passengers greater privacy in their berths as well as inviting communal spaces to socialize onboard.

Titanic's construction required 3,000 men to work for six days a week for two years straight with few holidays or breaks. Shipbuilding was dangerous, hard work. There were almost 250 documented incidences of severe work-related injuries and 10 deaths. There were few workplace safety standards at the time, so considering the magnitude of the project, Harland and Wolff's track record is still thought to be remarkable.

When Titanic set sail April 10, 1912, it was the largest ship ever constructed. Titanic reached 882 feet, 8 inches from stem to stern, the equivalent of four city blocks. If stood on end, it was as tall as a 10-story building.

For Ismay, who was onboard for the maiden voyage, it looked as if his dream of a truly Olympic class of ocean liners had become a reality.

Little did he know his dream would turn into a watery nightmare for so many in just a matter of hours. Although Ismay would escape with his life, the fact that he lived while so many died would haunt him as long as he lived.

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